The Impossible Four Great Vows

I visited a Zen practice group recently, and they recited the Four Great Vows.  I’m not sure I’m comfortable with saying them, because honestly I feel like they’re impossible.

The Four Great Vows are recited as a regular part of the liturgy at almost all places of practice.  There are many translations commonly in use in English.  Here is a sampling: 

Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them.
Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them.
The Dharmas are boundless, I vow to master them.
The Buddha Way is unsurpassed, I vow to attain it.

Sentient beings are numberless – I vow to save them all.
Delusions are endless – I vow to cut through them all.
The teachings are infinite – I vow to learn them all.
The Buddha Way is inconceivable – I vow to attain it. 

The many beings are numberless – I vow to save them.
Greed, hatred and ignorance rise endlessly – I vow to uproot them.
Dharma gates are countless – I vow to wake to them.
Buddha’s way is unsurpassable – I vow to embody it fully.

The very nature of a vow is that it’s somehow stronger than an ordinary promise or pledge.  It signifies a clear intent, a direction, a path that a person is determined to take, no matter what happens.  A vow is a way of declaring publicly (or in one’s heart), “I am going this way!  Period!”  Vows make us sit up and take notice of what we’re doing.  When we vow to do something, we get a certain in-your-face physical feeling of anxiety.  “What if I can’t do this?”  “What if something happens?”   “What if I change my mind?”  Whatever it is that comes up, we tend to take vows very seriously.

How do you take a vow to do something that is, almost by definition, impossible?  It is the nature of a vow to call our attention to the difficulty involved.  It is the nature of being human that failure, even repeated failure, is likely.  Yet, we make vows.  We try.  We make every conceivable effort.  We forget.  We fall short.  We fall down.  We get up again.  It gets interesting when we get up again – when we’ve dusted ourselves off and recognized our mistake.  Where do we go from there?  A vow, an unwavering intent, makes our direction clear.

The Four Great Vows use words like numberless, boundless, inconceivable, endless, and infinite.  That’s heavy-duty stuff!  These statements reflect the reality of our practice though, and it’s not unuseful to know that from the outset.  The capacity for making mistakes is as endless and infinite as our potential for awakening.  There is an expression, “seven times fall down, eight times get up”.  Maybe the eighth time represents the inconceivable, endless and infinite number of times that we will dust ourselves off and keep going.

We never “arrive” in the magical land of enlightenment and live happily ever after there.  This is the poignancy of being human.  But, what we can do is continue, moment to moment, day after day, to keep a clear direction.

We wouldn’t want small, limited and limiting vows.   It would be too easy to interpret them in ways that fit us, are attractive to us, add something special to us, or allow us to avoid dealing with the things that we privately want to hang on to.

Our practice is boundless.  The heart/mind is infinite.  And, the Buddha Way is, indeed, inconceivable.  Our practice is about breaking out of the small prison that we build for ourselves, deconstructing it and even removing the floor that we stand on.  Our practice is to open ourselves without reservation to the situations, people, and assorted sentient beings in front of us just now, just as they are, and to help in any way we can.  There is no limit to this process.  There’s no finish line.  Include everything.


Why Doesn’t Zen Teach the Answers to Life’s Great Questions?

It seems that Zen doesn’t answer any of the questions.  Rather, it questions all of the answers!   I just want the straight answers to the big questions in life.  Why don’t books on Zen provide them?

Why am I here?

What is this?

What is the meaning of life?

Who am I?

What is life?  What is Death?

To take up the practice of Zen is to throw yourself wholeheartedly into the core of human life with the resolute determination to see for yourself what the answers are to these questions.  It’s no small undertaking.  Philosophers, poets, and ordinary people have spent their lives trying to get a handle on these issues.  These are, after all, The Great Questions of human existence.   Perhaps they can’t be answered – at least not in a conventional way by reasoning and thinking our way to them.

Certainly, one way to resolve these issues would be to adopt someone else’s philosophy or belief system.  But then, you haven’t really seen it for yourself, have you?  And wouldn’t it be a bit limiting to say, “The meaning of life is __________”.

So, we start to practice with a little faith – faith in the experience of other people who have taken up the Way for the past 2500 years or so, and with faith in our own inherent wisdom and capacity to resolve the questions.  We start small.  We start right where we are.  We take our first steps in confusion and doubt and with awkwardness, sensing the enormity of the journey, but setting off anyway, because something in us compels us to.

When we begin by sitting down, shutting up, and paying attention, we are already deeply engaged in the process.  The simple, silent, but profound act of bringing our attention to the present moment is as noble an effort as determining to single-handedly save the world.

We see almost immediately that in order to participate fully in this practice, we must make adjustments in ourselves that throw us out of our comfort zone.  Our mind wants to follow whatever thoughts and impulses appear like a dog off the leash at a dog park, running after every squirrel and new smell.  Bringing our attention back to our breath can feel like we might be missing something important.  Our mind wants to take us from the cushion and back into the flow of never-ending distraction.

We recognize though, that this tendency is interesting.  It is human.  It’s not personal.  And because we have courage and faith in ourselves, and we have these Great Questions that are more compelling to us than the whims of the mind at the moment, we persevere.  We go ahead and take the risk of missing some thrilling new thought or new squirrel smell, at least for the duration of our time on the cushion.  It’s absolutely startling how difficult it can be though, isn’t it?

We’re comfortable with our mind’s familiar habits, beliefs and assumptions.  We’re so comfortable, in fact, that we take them for absolute truth.  It has never even occurred to us to do otherwise.  We’re so identified with them, that we take them for who we are without ever stopping to investigate their nature.  Even the smallest step into the unknown seems to be a monumental risk, like stepping from the top of a hundred foot pole.  Risk and step.  Risk and step.  Yet, with each little risk, like returning to the breath, we find that we’re still here.

At some point, we are willing to risk the big one:  I don’t know.

Why am I here?  I don’t know.

What is this?  I don’t know.

What is the meaning of life?  I don’t know.

Who is this “I” that doesn’t know?    …don’t know

When we don’t have an answer, a stance, a position, we’re available.   It’s like opening the door, just a crack, to see for yourself what’s really out there, and to let a little breeze in.  When we don’t have a fixed idea, there’s nothing in the way of our experience.  When the mind is open, when the heart is open, possibility is possible.

This is the doorstep of Zen.

You have to walk through for yourself.


Awakening all of Humanity

If you want to awaken all of humanity, awaken all of yourself.  If you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself.  Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation.



Be the change you want to see in the world.




Teaching the Mind

I am beginning to meditate, and I am practicing counting the breaths.  What is the point of this?  It doesn’t seem to have much to do with awakening.  It feels like being in the kiddie pool!  And, I still can’t stop my thoughts.

The Fukanzazengi, “Guideline for the Universal Practice of Zazen”, was written by Master Dogen in the 13th century.  In it, Dogen asks us to “think non-thinking”.   While Dogen was brilliant in his articulation of this “non-thinking”, it’s easy to see why his admonition can cause a great deal of confusion.

There are people who have practiced Zen meditation for years who still are not clear about the thinking issue.  They try with great concentration to cut off the stream of thought during meditation as though they were trying to stop the flow of water from a garden hose by putting their thumb over the end.  You’ve tried that, I’m sure, and of course the result is that the water squirts out in all directions!   This approach is not what we’re after.

Human minds think.  That’s what they do.  In and of itself, thinking is neither good nor bad, nor is thinking itself a delusion.  The tricky business is recognizing that it is our attachment to and identification with our thoughts that causes the problems.  Further, until we begin to practice, we are almost completely unaware of the extent to which we let our thoughts form and concretize our “reality”.

Here’s an example:  You go to a foreign country where they eat some kind of insect or reptile.  You, because of your conditioning, have a deep revulsion at the prospect of eating bugs, slugs, or lizards. The people around you are happily chomping and slurping, laughing and talking, and you’re thinking, “UGH!  This is disgusting!!  Oh, how can they do this?!  They’re crazy!  I’d throw up if I had to eat that! I’d rather starve!”   Is eating a bug inherently disgusting?

Perhaps this is too easy an example.  We can understand what’s going on in this scenario, even if we still wouldn’t eat a bug.  But what about the very sticky process of identification with and attachment to our thoughts?  We know they are conditioned.  We know, in theory at least, that there is a fundamental difference between “how it is” and what our opinion of a situation is.  Yet, when our idealized concept of who we are is threatened in the tiniest degree, our opinions suddenly become very “real” and impassioned indeed.  People go to war over this sort of thing!

So, on a gross level, we intellectually understand the bumper sticker, “Don’t believe everything you think”, but how does this apply to meditation and counting the breaths?  We’re getting to that.

There you are on the cushion, with good posture and clear intent.  You begin your period of meditation, and instantly you are distracted by remembering that yesterday at the office this and that happened.  You wonder how many minutes more you have to go.  You hope that so-and-so calls this afternoon.  It’s endless.  It’s relentless.

Maybe you concentrate fiercely on the floor in front of you for a few minutes.  (This is like putting your thumb over the end of the hose).  Perhaps you’re swept up in a romantic sense of peace and serenity.  But, all of this, including the romantic serenity, is like being thrown around in the back of a horse-drawn wagon which is careening down a road in the middle of the night with no reins on the horses and no driver in the seat.   People live out their whole lives this way, perpetually distracted from what’s actually happening in their lives.

Caveat #1:  Just because we feel that something is pleasant, or that it reinforces our notions of who we are, doesn’t make it Truth.  Just because we don’t like something, doesn’t make it bad.

Caveat #2:  What’s “really happening” is not what you THINK is happening.  There is an overwhelming tendency to say to oneself, “Oh, I KNOW what’s really happening!”  And then to follow that assertion with something equally ridiculous and ego-oriented, like, “These people are trying to kill me by making me eat bugs!”  Nonsense.

It’s very subtle.  It’s more subtle, in fact, than you can possibly imagine.

What the heck am I supposed to be doing if I’m not thinking about stuff? 

Have you ever watched a meteor shower?  Lightning bugs?  Have you ever smiled spontaneously when a child smiled at you?  Have you ever deeply listened to music?  Have you ever walked outside on a beautiful fall day and just listened to the sound of the crunching leaves under your feet?  Have you ever lifted a cup to your lips and really tasted the tea?   Then you know already what it is to experience the world with an open heart, and a vivid, alive, present mind.  It’s not alien, new, or a special skill that you have to learn.

Zen is about the process of waking up from the dream of identification with our sense of the world as we construct it, to the clarity of how it really is and what we really are.

What does this have to do with counting the breaths?

To get the horses to slow the wagon down, we first have to climb into the driver’s seat.  Minds love to be busy, so we give them something to do – something completely neutral.  We count the breaths.  Thinking mind can become content with this little “something to do”.  When random fantasies appear, we gently return to the breath.  We become “one… “  We become “two…”  The numbers begin to count themselves.  We practice, again, and again, and again, not being distracted, letting the plans and fantasies and all of that stuff fall away as we return our attention to the breath.   How can it be, that something as compelling as the thought that we were having, can simply dissipate like smoke when we put our attention elsewhere?  There are infinite lessons to learn in this process.   But, you’ll have to experience that for yourself.

When fantasy, planning, remembering, figuring out, and all the other forms of linear thought can dissipate like air; when “five…” breathes itself, there on the cushion, with the sound of the traffic going by;  when the floor in front of you is brown…  What is this?

Be careful!

one….   two….  three…
just this


Eating the Dharma Elephant

… one bite at a time.

There can come a time, especially in the early stages of practice, when it’s really not clear to us why we are practicing.  We don’t feel better.  We are a little discouraged and confused because the ideas about Buddhism and Zen practice that originally inspired us don’t seem to match very well with the experience that we’re having.

We might have begun our practice with the goal of reducing our suffering, or getting enlightened, or finding a path through the daily grind to a more peaceful and insightful way of living.  These are noble, worthwhile goals, and they are absolutely valid reasons to begin practice and to continue it.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Yet, as we keep hearing Dharma talks, reading books, or worse still, trying to sift through the “helpful” information on the internet, we get some pretty hefty and upsetting messages:  There is no enlightenment.  (or)  Zazen IS enlightenment.  Everything is “empty”.  Don’t attach to anything.  Be present.  There is no God.  There is no Self.  Everything is illusion/delusion. Stop thinking! Save all sentient beings from suffering! There’s no goal, no point, no trying.   If this isn’t enough, there are incomprehensible vows, and impossible “Zen-speak”, and koans (good grief!!), and… and… and…

This is a LOT to take in, and without the guidance of a teacher and the support of a sangha (group of people to practice with) it can be hard to develop an appropriate approach to all of these ideas.  Even with a teacher and a sangha we can get very confused and frustrated, but feel as though we shouldn’t ask about it.  We may have the sense that even though we don’t yet fully understand these things, that we should try to apply them.  We may feel that we ought to at least try to “stop thinking”.  No?

There are few things more likely to end in disaster than hurling yourself into the practice of not trying, with no goal, to attain nothing, with no point.

Please, slow down.

Please, please, slow down.   Take a breath.

You can’t just consume a Zen catechism and start trying to accept it and believe in it.  You can’t eat the whole elephant at once!  Zen is not a belief system that you can read about and then adhere to.  It isn’t a philosophy that you can intellectualize your way though, agreeing here and disagreeing there.  It is not a religion, in which should + ought + belief = salvation.

The practice of Zen is an on-going process of seeing for yourself what is at the core of who and what you are.  And no, “What you are” in the Zen-sense, has nothing to do with your story, your thoughts, your opinions or your beliefs.  But, all of this is what you discover for yourself – slowly, care-fully, and with great gentleness and compassion.

There is a vast body of writing about Zen, going back many hundreds of years.  But it is neither a curriculum nor a chatechism.  As you practice, over time, your own work will guide you to take up questions like What is emptiness?  or, What is delusion?  As this happens, you’ll find plenty of material to chew on.

You can only start each day right where you are, just as you are.  If you’re brand new to Zen, start here.  If you have a headache, start here.  If you’re depressed, or angry, or grieving, start here.  If you’re deeply motivated by wishing for enlightenment, or wishing for a way to help others, by all means, start here.  Each day, each moment, enter the Great Way here.

But for today, even if you’ve been practicing for eons, simply take up the practice of sitting on your cushion, doing your best.  When you’re not on the cushion, do your best.  Practice being kind to others – really look into that.

As for your wish for enlightenment, use it.  It’s an incredibly useful tool.  But, know, somewhere in the back of your mind, that it is a tool.  At some point, you’ll need to put it down.  No need to keep carrying the hammer around with you after a nail has been driven home.

Be gentle.  Do your best.  Start where you are.  Right now.  It’s enough.


Practicing with Openness

Have you ever been in the presence of someone, and felt utterly accepted and welcome? When those people come into our lives, even for a short time, we feel it deeply.

For most of us though, the impenetrable barriers that we erect to keep our ‘self’ safe preclude this kind of openness. We brace for impact at every turn. Yet, despite our best efforts, the world has a way of grinding against our sense of safety and seldom operates on our terms. What would happen if we were to open to life exactly as it is? What would happen if we were to open to one another in this way?

Here is a wonderful story about one of the greatest Zen masters of all time, Hakuin Ekaku, (1686-1768). Hakuin has a reputation for being brash, harsh, and flamboyant. He was a brilliant man, whose energy and excellence has inspired countless students.

A beautiful girl and her parents who owned a food store, lived near the monk, Hakuin. One day, to their horror, this girl’s parents discovered that she was pregnant. They were furious, and demanded to know who the father was.  For weeks, she steadfastly refused to confess his name. But, after much harassment, at last she pointed the finger at Hakuin. In a rage, the parents went to the master and confronted him, telling him about their daughter’s condition. “Is that so?” was all he would say.

After the child was born, it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation as a monk. Still, he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbors and begged for money for everything else that the child needed. A year later, the girl could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth – the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fish market. The mother and father of the girl went at once to Hakuin to ask forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back. Hakuin willingly yielded the child, saying only: “Is that so?”

Few of us would be able to manage this level of welcoming whatever comes! Even in our meditation, we want things to be just so. We want something nice, something extra, something that will be a beautiful add-on to how we already envision ourselves. But the art of zazen, of meditation, is to be a welcoming host to whatever lands on our doorstep – to get our ‘self’ completely out of the way, so that how things really are at this moment, can appear fully. Rather than bracing for impact, or struggling to achieve something, the art is to welcome.

This isn’t a new experience for any of us. It’s not something alien or a special skill that we have to learn. If you’ve ever had a butterfly land on you, you know the moment of total stillness, of wonder, of incredible gentleness, as you simply let it be a butterfly, just where and as it is.

I invite you to sit in this way.

Listen to the sound of the rain outside, or to the hum of the fan. Feel the temperature of the air. Experience the sensation of your own breathing. Welcome each sensation, each thought, each breath, each moment, on its terms. Notice the insubstantial nature of the thought that the air is too warm or cold, and return to welcoming, gently, moment after moment.  There is no dull indifference here, rather, it is the experience of being fully awake, alert, and alive.


Hoping for Enlightenment … UGH!

As we begin to practice zazen, and encounter the loud and rowdy parade of thoughts, we might well wonder why this isn’t a more peaceful endeavor.  We probably began to practice because Zen is, almost by popular definition, “peace”.  We may even harbor a secret hope that we’ll have not only peace, but some pretty cool experiences as well.  And, what about the mother of all cool experiences, enlightenment?

We can get a bit wonky with these hopes and expectations.  It’s easy to do.  If we didn’t aspire to something, we’d have little motivation to practice.  But here’s the trick:  There’s a big difference between the efforts of aspiration and the efforts of expectation.  Aspiration is an intent, a path, a direction.  Expectation is a little like driving down the road and asking impatiently, “Are we there yet?”

It can be particularly confusing to hear that zazen IS enlightenment, when what you’re experiencing is boredom, discouragement, raging monkey mind, and a sense of, “I don’t get this.” or, “I must not be doing this right.”  We can get pretty uptight just TRYING so hard to get something – kind of a samurai mentality.  Some people are, by nature, fiercely compelled to meditate.  They’re just wired that way.  Others have more of a one day at a time constitution.  It doesn’t matter so much.  Just practice.  But practice well.

Practicing well means doing your best.  And that simply means to sit upright and devote yourself to counting or being aware of the breaths for your 15 minutes or whatever reasonable time you’ve set for yourself.  It means noticing your thoughts and returning to the here and now, again and again.  It means opening to the experience of sitting there on the cushion.  Not analyzing or judging or collecting it, but actually experiencing it!

When you’re in a new place, and there’s something interesting going on, you’re totally there.  You’re open and interested and paying attention.  Just sitting in silence on a cushion doesn’t seem to offer much.  We’re bored by that kind of thing.  But as you sit, notice everything.  Notice everything with attention – not samurai con-cen-tra-tion (oof!), just open, aware, attention.  Thoughts appear.  That’s normal and natural.  Trying (oof!) to squash your thoughts is like forcing a cat to lie down quietly.  It ain’t gonna happen.  Just be present, now.  Breathing is happening.  Counting is happening.  The sound of cars going by is happening.  It’s really quite wonderful.

There are 10,000 lessons to be had in this kind of practice, as you’ve already begun to see.  And, it is endless.  There is no end to the potential of a human being to awaken.

We don’t practice in order to achieve something special.  It’s not a goal that can be reached, like getting to Philadelphia.  There is no destination of “Enlightenment” or even of “Peace”.  How can you have a “goal” in just this moment?!  And, now is all you have.  Past is a dim and inaccurate recollection, future doesn’t exist.  Our minds make all that.  And here’s a hint:  We make “enlightenment”.  The only thing for sure is your sitting here reading this page.  Notice that!  Right now!  So, practice like that.

It’s a paradox.  If we practice for a while, there will be times of peace.  There will be insight.  There will be openings of the heart.  If you practice for years, it’s inevitable that some unusual states of mind will come up.  But these things are a by-product of zazen, not a goal, and they’re not particularly special.  As for enlightenment, it’s just a word, and perhaps an aspiration, a direction.  Don’t grasp at it.  It’s like grasping at smoke.

Then why do this?  Why put myself through all this?

We do it to discover who and what we really are.  We get a peek, now and again, as we sit still with attention, of who we are – without all of our thinking, without our opinions, without our grasping, without living in the past or the future.  Little by little, we begin to wake from the dream of who we think we are.  Little by little, we begin to experience what it is to be fully alive.

You can’t think your way to it.  You must see it for yourself.  You must learn first-hand.   And the crazy thing is that at some point in your practice, you will begin to recognize that this effort is not about you at all.

More on that next time.